Set amongst the backdrop of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, 12 Mighty Orphans reminds us that orphans weren’t always looked upon favorably. In fact, at one time, they were completely stigmatized, considered second-class citizens, and referred to as nothing more than ‘inmates.’ Thousands of children were orphaned during this time period, and our story starts in 1938 as Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) arrives as the new coach to the football team of Fort Worth orphanage.
What follows is a truly inspirational story, as Russell, an orphan himself, works hard to imbue structure, discipline, and confidence into this downtrodden collection of misfits. He knows they don’t have the size or braun of other teams, so they need to utilize their speed and innovative strategies. The team Russell forms, The Mighty Mites, go against all odds, and eventually they catch the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt! At first, there’s resistance to his methods, but as the team starts picking up surprising wins, lots of people start to take notice. The way people acted towards orphans was both shocking and surprising to me, as I can barely envision a time when simply losing a parent or not having any to call your own was enough to get you on the wrong side of the tracks.
This is a big ensemble piece, with some of the team members receiving bigger and bolder scenes that others. I think it’s time to give Vinessa Shaw her due, as the Hocus Pocus actress debuts not one but two excellent films at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. You go, Vinessa! It gets a villain, too, in the form of Jurassic Park’s Wayne Knight as the despicable Frank Wynn, offering up “a kiss from Bertha,” his wooden striking beam, to orphans he takes issue with. Luke Wilson’s Russell is the core of the action and drama as he should be, and every machination and movement of the plot follows him and his impact on this incredible accomplishment he has created.
The whole “mighty warrior, mighty orphan!” mantra definitely reminded me of the “all ducks fly” and quacking rituals of The Mighty Ducks, and the film itself felt similar in a lot of ways to one of the greatest sports movies ever made, 2000’s Remember the Titans. If hard-pressed, you could probably even discover layers of The Blind Side. However, 12 Mighty Orphans truly does stand on its own two feet as a vibrant and inspirational sports drama. It has all the ingredients of a crowd-pleasing good time at the movies, as directed by Ty Roberts, who really plays up the juiciest sequences.
The typical ‘true story’ crawl at the end goes all the way through to end credits. It is one of the most beautiful ways I’ve seen a movie end like this, giving credit to each and every member of the team, as well as the coach and the other important figures. The loving tribute and contributions prove that every single orphan made an impact on society at large. This hammers home the importance of the messages and themes—it reminds us one last time that orphans truly are the mightiest of all.
12 Mighty Orphans recruits in Texas on June 11th, then nationwide on June 18th. It screens at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 14th.